Queen of hearts

Paediatric cardiologist Sunita Maheshwari on making a leap of faith and stepping into untested waters to create a brand new business.

OddNaari OddNaari Jan 07, 2010

The pulsing beat is enough to relax her. She taps her foot and then starts swinging to the music. "They call me the dancing doc," she says with a laugh as she clicks her fingers and does a quick twirl. At 43, with a dimpled smile that instantly disarms, paediatric cardiologist Sunita Maheshwari is an unlikely doctor-the kind most likely to break into a dance at the cath lab once a tough case has been taken care of. "Music is my stress buster," she says. It's obvious then from the getgo that Maheshwari has always danced to her own tune.

A Yale-trained doctor, she specialised in paediatric cardiology at a time when the subject was relatively unknown in India. Today she is one of a few interventional paediatric cardiologists in the country.

She is also senior consultant and head of department at Narayana Hrudayalaya, Bengaluru, one of the country's largest referral hospitals as well as co-founder and chief dreamer at Teleradiology Solutions, a company she started with radiologist husband Arjun Kalyanpur on their return from the US.

From a two-person operation when it started in 2002, the Bengaluru-based company has grown, now looking at over 2.6 million scans with 350 employees all over the world. It examines scans from 75 hospitals in the US and 11 centres in Singapore. It has received accreditation from the US Joint Commission of Accreditation of Healthcare Organisations and is the first such organisation outside Singapore to be certified by the country's Ministry of Health. It also works with centres in The Netherlands, Nigeria, Denmark, Croatia and Georgia. Maheshwari was also the winner of the Young Clinician Award from the American Heart Association and the Best Teacher Award at Yale University. At the hospital in Bengaluru, she runs one of India's largest fellowship training programmes teaching physicians endovascular interventional techniques.

Maheshwari wears these two hats-of a doctor and entrepreneur-with elan. While the first is something, she says, she always wanted to do, the latter, just happened.

"Somewhere, I think, when I was in the seventh grade, I decided I wanted to be a doctor. And I never changed my mind," she says, as she sips her cappuccino at a café in Delhi. "It's strange," she says. "I have never had a mid-life crisis, asked myself why I am on this earth or questioned myself. I know why I'm here and am continuously satisfied."

With former patient Tejaswani (right) and her sister With former patient Tejaswani (right) and her sister
Born in the US, brought up in Hyderabad, she studied medicine at Osmania Medical College, going on to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, for her post-graduation. Medical school was a dream brought to life.

She loved the smell of formalin and always carried Grey's Anatomy and 20 medical books with her to Kodaikanal, on vacation. "That was my holiday," she says. Maheshwari soon moved to Yale to complete her post-graduation studying paediatrics and then paediatric cardiology before joining the faculty.

But a return to India was inevitable. "I always wanted to come back and work here. So I had a pre-nup with my husband. I would marry him only if we decided to come back," she says with a laugh. "In the US, you are a cog in a welloiled machine. Here at least, I am in the sphere of making a difference." But the move wasn't easy. "Our friends thought we were more American than the Americans, that we would come back from JFK Airport and even betted on how long we would stay in India," she remembers with a smile. Two years. That's the maximum their friends gave them.

"It's the break point," she says. "Either you stay or go back to America. The day we hit the deadline, we threw a party. It was a two-years-up-in-India-but-stillhere party," she laughs. For Maheshwari, the move was perfect. She started work at a local hospital in Bengaluru. It wasn't her dream of being a village doctor, but then she had realised earlier that she was a big city girl. Then, she started teaching, and her professional life was complete. But her husband had it tougher.

There weren't many opportunities for a radiologist even if he was Yale and Cornell-trained. So he travelled back and forth, working in the US and living in India. Yale didn't want to let go of him. And all those trips gave birth to the idea of teleradiology, an unheard-of-concept in India.

(L-R) With husband Arjun, children Alisha and Adil (L-R) With husband Arjun, children Alisha and Adil
His friends at Yale talked about how there weren't any doctors to cover the night shift in radiology. So he offered to work from India, over the Internet. "It had never been done, sending American hospital scans to India, for analysis. It was high-end work, a novel concept but a controversial one," she says.

The deal with Yale ended, but the idea remained and the couple asked their nephew to set up a website for them. Before they knew it, the homegrown website had many hits and the company was born. Then, in 2005, the Singapore Government heard of the company and wanted to visit the office.

"We told them they were welcome," she says. "But that we weren't responsible for the roads outside," she laughs. The government had a problem. It took their health care system four days to provide an X-ray report. "We told them we could give it to them in one hour." It started with 35,000 scans in 2006, a figure that is now 60,000 with 99.8 per cent accuracy. Not that there haven't been problems. During the US presidential elections, Maheshwari and Kalyanpur found their company in the spotlight as out-sourcing became a huge campaign issue. "But we managed to turn it into good media. It was a challenging time," she says.

It's this passion and energy that Deepika Bedi remembers. She first met Maheshwari on moving to Bengaluru from the US. A friend and a colleague, Bedi who joined Teleradiology Solutions in 2006 as head of operations and HR says, "She always goes out of her way to help."

Like the time, a few days ago, when Maheshwari spotted a woman sitting by the wayside. She fed her and then stayed with her late into the night, until help could be found. "Now, that's Sunita for me," Bedi says.

Dr Bharat Dalvi, paediatric cardiologist and member of the Pediatric Cardiac Society of India, has known Maheshwari professionally for nearly 12 years. "She believes in taking care of not just her patients but also their families. I have never received a complaint from any of the patients I have referred to Narayana Hrudayalaya and that's saying volumes about her and her colleagues." Maheshwari is also trying to change the way doctors approach patients. "I tell the people at the hospital never to forget the pain of the family and of the child," she says. It is hard, she says, to lose a child. "I think you cry with the family. Sometimes it's all right to show your emotions."

She is still in touch with many of the children who were her patients. They remember dates and anniversaries. It's something she treasures. Just like Telerad Foundation, a nonprofit set up by the company to provide radiology services to remote areas in India. There are roadblocks. "Getting governments to listen isn't easy," she says. "But when we offered our services to the Karnataka Government they looked at us with intense suspicion." Now, they work with charitable hospitals. The going is slow. "It is frustrating. But then you take a deep breath and keep plugging away," she says.

As she shunts between the business and the hospital, Maheshwari does manage to find time for her children, Alisha, 12, and nine-year-old Adil. "I am a queen at multi-tasking," she says with a laugh. She tries to combine mommyhood with everything that she does. Weekends sometimes sees her at training sessions in tiny towns. Whenever possible she takes her children along. "They sit in the conference hall with doodle pads," she says. Like the time she took her children to the town of Chitradurga in Karnataka where she was giving a lecture.

Later, they explored the fort of Tipu Sultan. "I don't worry about what people think when they see my children with their bag of toys as I work in the cath lab," she says. "I incorporate them in my life." She often involves them in her cases, talking about the children who are her patients.

And she makes it a point to never slink out of the house. "I do what is doable and I stay out of the kitchen," she says with a laugh. She goes for a walk every day, often with her husband, as they bounce ideas off each other.

There is no dearth of ideas. Her current passion is folic acid and Maheshwari is busy dreaming up of ways to educate pregnant Indian women on the importance of folic acid in their lives. "It's important to dream whacky or big," she says. "That way you don't limit yourself and actually put those dreams into action."


 5 ways to start a business

  • Follow your crazy dreams. Never mind what the world says.
  • Before you begin, see if you have the passion in you
  • It's not a 9 to 5 day
  • There will be ups and downs, maybe more downs
  • Remember to treat your employees well

5 perfect things to do with children

  • Cuddle in bed with lots of hugs and music in the background
  • Have dinner together and ask about the best and worst part of the day
  • Be there at nights. Have a special bedtime ritual.
  • On a holiday, explore something new in your city
  • Do something good like going to an old age home

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